Kevin McStay: New York trip is now just a box ticker for players and managers
We need to ask is the current provincial system really fit for purpose any more
New York host Roscommon in 2016 at Gaelic Park. If you are a manager or a player, the New York tie is just a box ticker. Photograph: Ed Mulholland/Inpho
Like other people, I listened into the radio reports from New York on Sunday evening and then watched the highlights from Galway’s visit to London. If there was an inevitable one-sidedness to Mayo’s steamrolling performance in the Bronx, then London again managed to give one of the big Connacht teams a fright.
The overseas games are an unusual and an exotic way to start the All-Ireland football championship and the New York game, in particular, I suppose is a fixture that always leaves me feeling conflicted.
As a GAA supporter and spectator, I think those days are wonderful. But as a former player and manager, those trips are just a test of endurance and will. There is nothing to be gained except passage to the next round – and an avoidance of embarrassment.
Listening to Sunday’s game naturally made me think back to my visit to Gaelic Park in 2016 as Roscommon manager. Like many players, I’m very familiar with McLean Avenue and Gaelic Park and the tradition of the GAA in the Bronx. For many people, Gaelic Park is a place that is tied up with our youth. I played there many times, as a ‘weekend’ player for Monaghan one summer.
Tom Carr and myself would take a Saturday afternoon flight, have a night out in New York, play Sunday, fly out that night arriving into Dublin at 6.30am and we’d be on duty in the barracks for 8.30am. Monaghan had a good run that summer and the trips were exhilarating and exhausting.
Guys were becoming bored in the hotel and on the Saturday, they wanted to go sight-seeing and shopping.
The Saturday nights were great fun. The actual games were incredibly edgy and physical. There was one golden rule: get rid of the ball as quickly as you could. You simply didn’t carry the ball then unless you wanted to risk getting hurt. Gaelic Park felt like what it was: a place apart.
So when you bring a team in there as manager, all of these thoughts are swirling around except that now you are responsible for a squad who are obliged to win; anything less means disaster. And it is a complicated task. If we had been beaten that day, Fergal O’Donnell, my co-manager and I wouldn’t have made it to the airport on Monday as managers of Roscommon.
One of the things I remember about 2016 was the initial headache to trying to see who could travel. It was essentially costing a grand per player. So it was decided to leave injured players at home. It wasn’t something they were given an option about.
Our panel was still around 36 so now you are leaving people behind: guys who have trained hard, who want to be part of it. And that means the panel vibe isn’t great when you are setting out.
And we brought a lot of management with us because we were building a backroom team and they were important. And you know how this looks; you’re thinking to yourself, God, we are taking backroom staff and leaving players behind. Then we chose our own hotel because for Roscommon’s previous trip the hotel was smack in the city and that brought about its own distractions.
So we went an hour outside town; with traffic, that turned into 90 minutes going into Gaelic Park for a kick around or to various pre-match engagements. Even on the day of the game, there was wet weather and road works so we were late. There is no Garda escort to the game, you are just another bus on a highway.
Guys were becoming bored in the hotel and on the Saturday, they wanted to go sight-seeing and shopping. But it was hot and we were worried about them getting sapped. We allowed them to go but it wasn’t an ideal way to spend the eve-of-game.
The atmosphere in the ground on the day of the game was different. There were so many people on the sidelines that we ended up parking up on a sort of hill behind one of the goals to get a better view. The dressing rooms, as everyone knows, are very small. The protocol of the day just feels looser. I am not making excuses because New York were excellent and being honest, they probably deserved to beat us that day.
But what really soured it for me was that Cian Connolly had his jaw broken off the ball. His Dad is a neighbour of mine and was a sergeant in the local Garda station. I was livid afterwards. I went in to see Maurice Deegan, the referee, in the dressing room. I wasn’t rude but I did make it clear that it was his duty to look out for these guys. We had captured what happened on video.
Maurice said that it would certainly be mentioned in the report. But nothing ever came of it. So Cian missed out on that campaign. It was disappointing that this auld cowboy stuff could still happen with no repercussions. It wasn’t a rancourous game. This was an isolated incident and New York were playing very well. But that was disappointing. And then the oxygen went out of the whole weekend because it was such a poor performance by us and the attitude became: let’s just get home. It becomes a different thing.
As a supporter, it is great fun. I had family who had travelled from Boston and McStay cousins in New York and you have a few beers and a nice meal and it is lovely. But by the end of that match, it was neck and neck and we were imploding on the field. We couldn’t get hands on the ball. The crowd was going berserk for New York because they could see a shock on the cards. They had a wonderful chance to score a goal in injury time and then Senan Kilbride somehow scored a fantastic winner for us.
But I remember having this feeling that I didn’t care if we win or lost in that moment. I have spoken to other managers who go out there and this is a recurring theme. It had become a dismal experience. If you are a manager or a player, the New York tie is just a box ticker.
In the minds of visiting managers, it is a redundant fixture, a duty to fulfil with no obvious gain. And yet. And yet. As a GAA person, I am a huge fan of it. And I would hate to see it disappear. I think New York GAA are fantastic. I have only been a spectator for the London experience and they have made huge progress.
If a team has the resources to do what Mayo are doing now and can spend a week there in a training camp, then it can be enjoyable and beneficial. But the reality is that New York are 20 years now waiting for a win and you wonder what the future for the fixture will be.
So the weekend reinforced the sense that Gaelic football and the whole concept of the All-Ireland championship is approaching a crucial moment in its history.
I’m going to be working with RTÉ as an analyst this year and when I got the television schedule for the summer, I had the same sense that the ground is shifting beneath our feet. For instance, RTÉ is down to show just one live provincial football game apart from the four finals; Donegal v Tyrone – and that for now is a theoretical fixture. So all of the early round games are not on television.
The arguments about restructuring the All-Ireland have been doing the rounds for years. I don’t think they amount to a hill of beans in terms of their influence on the GAA. It is a traditionalist organisation. They like to preserve their rituals and traditions and the provincial championships are a sacred part of that. But, last year, the number of spectators going to see those games dropped. That’s a voice the GAA will sit up and listen to.
And now you have the people who decide which of these games they will show on television also turning their back on it. So you have to conclude that Gaelic football, in its current state, is turning people off. I know a lot of my friends won’t go along to watch a neutral game anymore. Some won’t even watch a full match on television.
The hurling championship, meanwhile, is thriving. Remember, the hurling round robin was put together because the hurling custodians were worried about the impact of the football Super 8s. But they have already boxed off 20 teams into the tiered hurling championship competitions.
So what the country is seeing on television are the eight elite hurling teams playing each other in a rotating series of significant games. It is engaging, the momentum is building, the twists have been dramatic.
People are, in general, becoming more precious with their time. They are more reluctant to commit to a sports fixture that feels like a foregone conclusion. I am very excited about this year’s championship. But I find myself projecting to the provincial finals and what will happens after that.
Going to see Mayo play Ros or Galway wasn’t just a game; it was a ritual, a part of summer
This is an historical year. One of two things will happen. Dublin are going to become the first team to win five All-Irelands in succession. Or some county is going to stop them.
I do believe there are challengers out there. If this thing was easy to do, then it would be have been done already. So the big picture is fascinating.
But of more immediate concern is the feeling that the provincial system is disappearing before our eyes and we need to ask if it is still working. And in stating this, I feel as if I am betraying a value system that is hugely important to me. I mean, if my father could hear me now.
Going to see Mayo play Ros or Galway wasn’t just a game; it was a ritual, a part of summer. It feels like a betrayal to question the worth of all that. And I feel genuinely torn.